I was on stage with a TV star last week

September 9, 2015 • Posted in blindness, public speaking, Uncategorized by

If you watched the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off show Private Practice when it was on ABC a few years ago, you know who Dr. Gabriel Fife is. The genetics specialist was introduced in the third season as a love interest who worked for a rival medical practice. The character used a wheelchair, and so does the actor who played him: Michael Patrick Thornton.

Michael Patrick Thornton

Michael Patrick Thornton

Private Practice went off the air in 2013, but national TV watchers loss is Chicago’s gain: Michael Patrick Thornton is a native Chicagoan, and now that he’s back in town full-time we get to see him live on stage here.

I myself appeared on stage last week at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre with Michael Patrick Thornton, and after sharing the stage with him, you know, I just call him Michael. We were there with other disability advocates at “Greater Together,” Chicago’s first Cultural Accessibility Summit.

My job was to give a short testimonial on how important it is for civic and cultural leaders (hundreds of them were there in the audience) to support accessible programming at the museums, theatres and foundations they work for. Michael was there in his real-life role as the Artistic Director & Co-founder of The Gift Theatre in Chicago. He talked candidly with the audience about the spinal stroke he suffered at age 23 and what it was like to emerge from a coma three days later on life support.

“It took a while for doctors to figure out what happened to me — it was very Dr. House-like,” he said, the sound of dark humor in his voice. He left the hospital paralyzed from the neck down, and after years of hard work at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago he’s regained some of his mobility.

Michael Patrick Thornton’s interest in theater started when he was in high school, and he and William Nedved had founded The Gift Theatre Company two years before Michael’s spinal stroke. Michael didn’t take much of a break from The Gift during his recovery — a 2006 story in the Chicago Reader  marveled that months after suffering a second stroke during rehab, Thornton “was directing Language of Angels, holding auditions at RIC while still an inpatient.” During the Q&A last week an audience member thanked Thornton for applauding the work the Chicago arts community is doing to improve accessibility for patrons, but she wondered if the same could be said for performers. “Have things improved for actors in wheelchairs, too?”

Michael answered with an immediate “no.” Actors with disabilities are woefully underrepresented on stage and screen, he said. “I’m pretty much it.”

He told the audience that one thing he can do to advance the cause for other actors with disabilities is to take on roles as someone’s best friend, or a lawyer, or a criminal, people like that — avoid lead roles in inspirational stories about heroes with disabilities who triumph over adversity. “I want parts where the wheelchair never once gets mentioned.”

Michael Patrick Thornton played Iago in Gift’s production of Othello last year, and when I talked to him after our presentation last week he told me how thrilled he is to be directing the world premiere of David Rabe’sGood for Otto at Gift next month.

But wait. There’s more: in March of next year he has the lead role in Gift’s production of Richard III, which will be staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre to accommodate larger audiences. Here’s a prepared statement from Michael about the upcoming season, which will be The Gift’s 15th:

Great theater asks great questions. Our milestone anniversary season asks: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ In perfect circuitousness, we begin where many of us first met — at Steppenwolf. In collaboration with our lead production sponsor, The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, we will present a definitive ‘Richard III’ for the ages, performed in conjunction with Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. It will re-define what disability, ability, and Shakespeare’s villain can look like.

Good for Otto opens at The Gift Theatre in Chicago’s Jefferson park neighborhood next month, and Richard III opens in March, 2016 at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre at 1650 N. Halsted in Chicago. Mark your calendars now and look for me at both performances — I’ll be in the audience this time.

Sheila A. Donovan On September 9, 2015 at 10:39 am

I went to the Chicago Rehab Institute after my fall down the Cultural Center’s stairs. They did a marvelous job of bringing me back to pre-fall condition. Nobody asked me to go on stage to talk about it. 😉 I love that you’re spreading the message that those with disabilities enjoy the arts and should be part of them.

bethfinke On September 9, 2015 at 10:59 am

Gee, I guess you’ll just have to start a theatre company and keep it running for 15 years –maybe then the Goodman will ask you up on stage!


bigdebby On September 9, 2015 at 11:41 am

And to think we don’t even have audio
description services for movies so blind ppl can follow better. A technology that has been available for years. As I said on this blog before, theaters are required to have ramps. Not sure if Closed Captioning is readily available. How is a barrier to access defined?

bethfinke On September 9, 2015 at 11:53 am

Oh, Debbie, perhaps Chicago really is ahead of other areas of the country. I didn’t have enough space to talk about all of the speakers at this summit. I sat on stage next to a woman who has a severe hearing loss, she lost most of her hearing in her 20s and spoke of how the offerings of closed captioning in different Chicago theatres brought her out of her shell after she lost so much of her hearing. . That woman then guided me up to the podium to talk about my experiences with audio and touch tours and such. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but the director of audience services at Steppenwolf spoke and said that when they started offering touch tours/audio headsets at Steppenwolf years ago only five theatres did so. I think he said now 50 theaters in the Chicago area do that? Or maybe it was 15, I can’t remember. In any case, it’s growing here, and from what I heard from people in the audience afterwards, more and more civic and cultural leaders from theatres and museums in Chicago are eager to do more.


Charlene On September 9, 2015 at 9:16 pm

Hi Beth, I think YOU should be acting in the production too! Well, maybe next time!

bethfinke On September 18, 2015 at 9:30 pm

This comment proves it: you *are* my biggest fan, Charlene!


Colleen On September 10, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Very nice article Beth!

bethfinke On September 11, 2015 at 2:45 pm

Thanks, my friend.


Mondays with Mike: Great for Otto | Safe & Sound blog On December 21, 2015 at 9:14 am

[…] the backstory. Beth’s posted here before about The Gift Theater, and it’s co-founder Michael Patrick Thornton. The short of it is, Thornton befriended the renowned Tony-winning playwright David Rabe years ago. […]

Leave a Response